“This class will change your life.”
Dr. Jim Butler spoke those words at the start of each new semester while teaching at the University of Alberta. The class he was referring to was Environmental and Conservation Sciences (ENCS) 201: Wildlife Biodiversity and Ecology. I was one of his students in the winter of 1998. I was also one of his skeptics.
Lots of theory, nothing for the real world, I thought to myself. Somehow I doubt my life’s going to change because of this!
I know I wasn’t the only cynic sitting in that lecture theatre either. Stifled laughter could be heard all around while countless students rolled their eyes at Dr. Butler’s brazen statement. How could he claim this class would be any different or any more useful than all our other courses? Was he challenging us? While thumbing through our class handouts, I noticed he even had the audacity to print that statement into the
introduction of our ENCS 201 lecture notes.
Wow, I thought, that’s a pretty brash move if you ask me.
I think it was mid-way through my first lab session when I began to realize the magnitude of what I’d gotten myself into. The teaching assistants informed us that by the end of the semester we’d be able to identify every species of wildlife in Alberta by sight, including 71 mammals, 41 fish, 10 amphibians and of course 200-plus species of birds.
In addition to this overwhelming task, we would be responsible for learning individual animal calls and for identifying mammals only by the formation of their skulls. (You know, in case one day Hollywood would ever need a wildlife consultant on the set of CSI: Alberta.)
Given that this class was such a huge undertaking, it quickly became my all-consuming endeavor. Like it or not, I knew that in order to do well I would have to make ENCS 201 my priority. I surrounded myself with students who possessed the same drive as I did to succeed and, surprisingly, I actually began looking forward to Dr. Butler’s 3-hour lectures every Thursday night.
Although the Friday afternoon lab sessions continued to intimidate me each week, the teaching assistants offered different pointers to help us with the identification of certain animals.
“As a salute to our professor, we like to refer to the American wigeon as ‘The Butler Duck’,” a teaching assistant explained to us one week. “It has a distinct white forehead that makes it look like it’s bald on top.”
“Oh, and Dr. Butler’s also American, hence the connection with this duck’s name.”
Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “American Woman” became a theme song of sorts for this particular duck, although we’d replace the ‘woman’ with ‘wigeon’ any time our presence was graced by a karaoke machine.
“American wigeon! Stay away from me-eee! American wigeon! Baby can’t you see-eeee?”
Given the gusto with which we’d belt out our karaoke tribute to waterfowl, it wasn’t long before we considered ourselves bona fide Bird Nerds. I figure with the amount of studying and preparation I did each week for my ENCS 201 class alone, I’m now set for life. Wildlife became my life and, still today, there’s rarely a moment I’m without my binoculars or my field guide. My field guide is like my Bible.
It became a joke amongst us wildlife students that it was easy to differentiate us from students studying in other fields. We could always be seen walking across campus with a Walkman, wearing headphones and listening to our pre-recorded cassette tape of animal calls, while staring at the sky with the hopes of finally having that one rare sighting. My friend Michelle was especially good at deciphering calls and she became notorious for her over the top imitations.
“Quick, what am I?” she’d start her series of rapid fire questioning. “Eeeeeuuuuuueeeeeeeee…!!!”
“You’re Cervus elaphus,” I’d respond between fits of hysteric laughter. “An American elk establishing its territory during the October rut!”
“And how am I different from a caribou?”
“Your head is a chocolate brown colour and you don’t have an active dewclaw to help you walk on snow!”
“And you live mainly in the mountains, not the northern boreal forest!”
“And a caribou doesn’t say ‘Eeeeeeuuueeee…!’”
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this class occurs the first time a student hears a call out in the wild and is able to immediately identify it for others. I still remember when this happened to me, while on an early morning fishing excursion with my family later that spring.
*Cuh, cuh, cuh, cow, cow, cowwww!*
“Shh… did you hear that?” I asked everyone. “Do you know what that is?”
*Cuh, cuh, cuh, cow!*
“That’s a Pied-billed grebe,” I continued. “They build floating nests on the water and their populations are considered threatened and even endangered in certain parts of North America and…”
And I could see from the looks on my relatives’ faces that they clearly thought I was nuts. None of their opinions could suppress my enthusiasm, though, as I continued to paraphrase other calls for the remainder of the trip.
“That’s a Red-winged black bird! And did you hear that?”
“That’s a Black-capped chickadee saying its name! Can you hear it guys? Guys…?”
Fast forward to the present and you’ll see that I’m still passionate about nature, and I’ll still rattle off random facts about wildlife to anyone willing to listen. And I still can’t go for a simple walk outdoors without finding something that captures my attention.
One fall I was hiking in Valley of Fire, a small State Park in the Nevada desert when I saw what appeared to be a small rodent skull buried in the sand. Naturally, I stopped to pick it up.
To my disappointment ‘the skull’ was only a dried up leaf, but at first glance I would have sworn it was the remnant of some poor mammal making its way across the barren landscape only to die in the hot Nevada sun. This time, it wasn’t so. The next time, though, it will be a skull or an injured or dead animal, and I’ll eagerly use the skills I obtained in Dr. Butler’s class to give that animal an identity.
Today the Wildlife Biodiversity and Ecology class is still being taught at the University of Alberta, although Dr. Butler has long moved on. His enthusiasm for science and nature was contagious, though, and it’s fair to say that his bold stance all those years ago was warranted. ENCS 201 did change my life.
Next spring, I’ll again greet the emergence of the first American robin by paraphrasing its call with a hearty ‘Cheer-up, cheerily! Cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily!’. I’ll also take more time to visit the lake at Hawrelak Park, where the American wigeon is known to frequent.
And you can bet I’ll be humming along to an old Bachman Turner Overdrive tune while I’m there, sitting with my binoculars and my field guide.
Submitted by Joanne Marghella-McGowan '00 BSc
Environmental and Conservation Science specialized in Wildlife Restoration